Updated: Feb 19
I’ve been asked a lot recently how I ended up running an escape room business so I thought I’d answer some of the commonly asked questions here.
Tell us a bit about your background
Three and a half years ago I'd not heard of an escape room but it’s amazing the skills you can acquire through life and, while I don’t believe in fate, it seems that running an escape room is a pretty good fit for the abilities I’ve developed over the years.
My dad was a brilliant joiner and I’d spend hours as a kid helping him in his workshop and that's where my love of building things comes from. Our garden in Newcastle is home to various projects from pizza ovens, aerial rigs and a 'sitooterie'
My work background has been in education – in all its weird and wonderful forms! I started teaching wood and metalwork in an African village school about 30 years ago. That experience helped me learn the importance of resourcefulness and creativity, which is probably what prompted me to build a raft from my bed and sail it down the River Nile!
I then moved to Turkey, teaching business English, and it was after one evening class that I was arrested and imprisoned for espionage! I often wonder if that was where the seed for Spy School was planted.
On returning to my native North East in the late ‘90s, I was signed as a ‘free summer transfer’ by Newcastle United to develop a technology-rich programme at their Learning Centre in St James’ Park. Using football as the hook, we ran video, animation and computer coding classes for more than 20,000 kids from local schools. Government-funded programmes like that were hit hard by austerity cuts and I was made redundant in 2015. Using the skills I’d developed, I set up Click Club, which aimed to engage youngsters in technology and coding through imagined ‘crime scene investigations’, robotics workshops and a ‘secret agent academy’ called Spy School.
What led you to set up The Escape Key?
In 2016, I was running Spy School which visited schools and holiday camps. where our young recruits learned the skills needed to become a secret agent. The highlight for our budding Bonds was the laser maze – an essential ingredient in many good (and not so good) spy movies.
Over the dinner table, I was describing how the young spies had to avoid the laser beams to collect cylinders which contained the combination to a secret safe. ‘So it’s like an escape room?’ interrupted my brother who was over here from Singapore. ‘What’s an escape room?’ was my reaction. He went on to tell me how escaping from a locked room within an hour was a massive recreational activity for friends and family in the Far East. Live escape rooms in the far east grew out of online Escape the Room games by Toshimitsu Takagi in 2004. You can still play his pioneering 2004 game Viridian room I was intrigued and so, the very next day, I visited my first escape room. I loved it, but I also recognized that it could be done so much better. So I decided to go for it as a business, and within weeks had found an old warehouse to lease in Gallowgate.
Darn Crook,in Gallowgate- birthplace of Andrews' Liver Salts and the home of The Escape Key which overlooks the church and graveyard of St. Andrew's church
How long has The Escape Key been up and running now?
We were officially founded in March 2017. Once we’d chased the pigeons out of the warehouse, it was just a case of building the rooms themselves.
I work closely with my son, Nathan, on each build. As an engineering student at Northumbria University, he’s invaluable in bringing my ideas to life. We opened in August of that year, and we’ve continued to reinvest and build new rooms ever since.
What escape experiences do you offer?
With the opening of Electric City in November, we now have four premium escape rooms at our Gallowgate venue, meaning we can accommodate around 25 people playing at once. Best played by teams of four to six, our games are not simply about ‘escaping’, each game has its own unique story and objective, and contains a variety of intriguing puzzles that will challenge players’ problem solving, coordination and communication skills.
What’s special about The Escape Key?
Our escape rooms are themed around Newcastle’s rich heritage and our customers – whether local or visiting – tell us they really enjoy learning about the fascinating history which inspired our rooms. The Plague room draws on one of the worst plague outbreaks in English history, many victims of which are buried right below us in the church yard. Perhaps even more grisly is the story of the Newcastle witches, who were hanged at Gallowgate and buried in the graveyard below our Witch room. It’s not all doom and gloom though – our latest creation, Electric City, celebrates the fact that Newcastle was the first city in the world to be lit by electricity.
We really set out to raise the standard of escape rooms and create the most immersive experiences possible. We build our rooms to almost movie-set quality, which does take longer and costs a lot more, but it’s really satisfying when players notice the attention to detail. We also pride ourselves on our fantastic customer service, and all our Games Masters work hard to ensure guests have an amazing experience. We’re delighted that customer reviews have made us the number one-rated escape room in Newcastle. We were even listed in the Top 100 escape rooms in the world in 2019.
What are your plans for 2020?
We don’t have the physical space for any new rooms at The Escape Key, so 2020 may see us deliver experiences at other venues, such as hotels. We’re also looking to develop plans for a larger-scale challenge experience.